At any given moment in fiction, the story is being told from some point of view. In literary terms, that point of view is described in terms of narrative person: first person is told as if the narrator is the same as the character currently in the spotlight, third person is told as if the narrator is observing the currently active character. I’m referring to the character in this way instead of main character, because in a particular scene or passage, the character in focus may not be a main character of the story at all.
But before going any further, the narrative person should not be confused with the grammatical person of any particular sentence. The grammatical person refers to the sentence subject and verb. Pronoun subjects may be first, second or third person, singular or plural, but noun subjects are third person singular or plural. The verb must agree in person and number with the subject.
The narrative person, on the other hand can generally be considered singular, because the words are presumably narrated from one mind at a time, unless the narrative is delivered by a hive consciousness. Also, the narrative voice is usually first or third person, although second person has been used to tell a reader what he or she is perceiving. Personally, I abhor second person POV; it’s like treating the reader like a hand puppet, and don’t ask where the hand goes!
To illustrate why narrative voice and grammatical voice may differ, consider these two paragraphs:
I felt a fat wet drop splash on my face. I looked up and saw a grey wall of rain approaching from the east, and I ran for shelter.Both of these paragraphs are written from a first person point of view, but the second paragraph alternates between first and third grammatical person in the individual clauses. To me, the second paragraph flows better, feels more natural. So when someone suggests you write a section from a particular person, they are usually referring to the narrative person, and it does not mean you should change the person in each and every sentence to match.
A fat wet drop of rain splashed on my face. I looked up. A grey wall of rain was approaching from the east, and I ran for shelter.
In terms of drawing a reader into your story, you need to establish a point of view (POV), and maintain it. Yes, it is valid to shift POV, but if you don’t choose the transitions well, you can leave the reader “floating”.
If you have not worked on holding a consistent POV before, you should probably write a story or two with a single POV throughout, so you can more easily pay attention to when you slip out of that POV. Here’s an example:
Benjamin hurried up the grassy slope, puffing from the exertion. As he crested the hill, the settlement of Fort Matthews sprawled in the valley before him. The settlement, founded in 1843, had provided a haven for travellers from Indian attacks for thirty years.Do you see where the story fell away from Benjamin’s POV in the third sentence? Suddenly Benjamin is alone and forgotten at the crest of the hill, while someone else begins giving a history lesson.
There may be times you want to switch over to an omniscient POV, but you should never do so in the middle of a scene. Here’s the same paragraph, but keeping Benjamin present:
Benjamin hurried up the grassy slope, puffing from the exertion. As he crested the hill, the settlement of Fort Matthews sprawled in the valley before him. Benjamin wondered whether travellers still fled there from Indian attacks, thirty years after the settlement was founded. He suddenly felt very exposed atop the hill.You want to keep the reader hooked into the scene, especially at the beginning of your story. Maintaining a well-anchored POV will help you immensely in this regard.
One subtle thing to watch out for is narrator intrusion:
He heard a low rumble, and saw the sand grains dancing on the floor.In the first sentence, you are watching the character as he hears the rumble and sees the sand grains begin moving. But in the second sentence, you are the character. I call the first one a popcorn POV, because the perspective is as someone in the cinema watching the action take place, whereas in the second sentence, you are fully embedded in the scene. Whenever possible, you want to avoid the popcorn POV and get the reader into the character’s shoes.
A low rumble sounded, and the sand grains began dancing on the floor.
Another common mistake is to think of your POV character as a perfect recording device, instead of a person with limited focus. In other words, you might be tempted to describe everything the character can see or hear, instead of what he or she would actually notice and pay attention to.
For example, when you run into a friend you have seen nearly every day for the past decade, you won't notice her auburn curls tumbling about her narrow shoulders. You would notice that it's Erica, and she seems excited about something.
So make sure that what you describe is not only what the POV character can observe, but also what he or she would observe at that time and place.
Entire novels, and excellent ones at that, have been written using a single POV. Others tend to restrict the perspectives to a small number of viewpoints, often two. But no matter how many points of view you operate from, maintain the focus carefully and only switch when you have a good reason to shift the focus of the story.
That is, of course, all from my point of view.
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